The columns you’re reading here are called “op-ed” or opinion-editorial pieces, now staple features in all newspapers. Larger western newspapers have also started to feature, online, “op-docs,” defined by the New York Times as “short, opinionated documentaries, provided with creative latitude by independent filmmakers and artists.”
Print or video, these opinion pieces are usually about politics. But, as you see here in the Inquirer, we can have opinions, too, about many other issues, including life itself, and being human.
A powerful example of this semiphilosophical op-ed/op-doc genre was posted a few weeks ago in the New York Times, providing welcome relief from the depressing political developments of our times. Google “NY Times Videos Long Live Benjamin” and make sure not just to watch the videos but also to read a text commentary by its producer, Alan Hirsch, who is an artist and writer.
Hirsch collaborated with a filmmaker, putting together old photos and videos to talk about his life with Benjamin, a capuchin monkey from Venezuela that he had adopted. He writes about his first encounter with “a shriveled baby capuchin, clinging to life.” Benjamin’s mother had been killed, for “monkey soup.”
Hirsch smuggled Benjamin back to his home in New York City, where it is illegal to keep wild animals as pets. But, as cities go, as New York goes, people find ways to get around laws. Benjamin lived with Hirsch in a Manhattan loft, and went along with his human friend to parks and restaurants. Looking back, Hirsch felt that Benjamin provided “a perfect organic link in this concrete jungle,” meaning people would stop in the streets, delighted and entertained by Benjamin.
There’s footage in the op-docs of Benjamin growing up with Hirsch’s daughter, with the monkey generally being very protective of the child, and many more happy interactions.
But Hirsch did notice that as Benjamin grew older, he became more difficult to control. And then one day, it happened. There was an “altercation” with someone, resulting in a court case tackling Benjamin’s presence in the city. The illegal alien made it into the news throughout the country. Hirsch knew Benjamin had to go, but he was not about to abandon the monkey.
I won’t tell you the ending, so do watch the videos. What I’m doing is an op-ed on the op-doc, and I do this as an anthropologist and a veterinarian.
Hirsch writes about Benjamin being an “ambassador of the jungle world, reminding us of our distant but common heritage.”
What Hirsch is referring to is Benjamin being a primate, a large biological taxonomic (classification) group that includes Bohol’s tarsiers and other “prosimians,” as well as numerous monkey species like capuchins, and apes (for example, chimpanzees and gorillas).
The like of Hirsch’s family with Benjamin shows the dilemmas in the relationships we have with animals, or, more precisely, if we are to use biological classification systems, nonhuman animals. Dogs, cats, monkeys, apes, humans—we are all animals. I know it sounds almost insulting, especially if you make a quick translation into the Filipino word “hayop.”
But hayop we are, and the brutality we inflict on nonhuman animals as well as fellow humans speaks of our kahayupan.
We often seek, and build bonds with, the hayop world (I’m trying to avoid the long “nonhuman animals” for now). Hundreds of species of hayop have entered human lives, many for utilitarian purposes (cows and carabaos, for example, as “beasts of burden”), others for companionship like our dogs and cats, and still others to be sacrificed as food. Many of the animals are of “mixed use,” like our dogs, used to help with hunting, as guards, as pets… and as food.
As a veterinarian, I’ve had to deal with all these human perceptions and how they shape the care of animals. We all know about how cruel we Filipinos can be with animals, including the use of dogs for food. But I think it’s cruelty as well to overpamper a dog, keeping it in the house and overfeeding so it suffers from hypertension and other human problems like obesity.
We can get very confused about our feelings around our hayop, especially because the boundaries are not always clear. In rural areas I still find families who have “wild” animals—birds, mammals, reptiles—kept at home, with no major problems, and with children handling these “pets” nonchalantly.
Many, many years ago, my mother came home with a baby macaque monkey (that’s our common unggoy). She was in a taxi and in front was a truck that was transporting these unggoy. As a joke, she signaled to the worker at the back of the truck to give her one. And he obliged.
That was in the 1950s, and the incident reflects a different time when distinctions between urban and rural, “domesticated” and “wild,” were more porous.
But, like Benjamin, the unggoy that came into our home presented a dilemma from the beginning. We fed it cow’s milk, in a bottle, but it didn’t survive.
There’s always the temptation to take home a monkey. Monkeys are really our distant cousins, and that is why they appeal, being easily transformable into little brothers or sisters. When we get to apes, like the chimpanzees, we are challenged even more by their “intelligence” (defined, of course, on our terms).
Humans, more than any other animal species, have learned to care for species other than our own. We have allowed them into our homes. We risk life and limb to protect them in wildlife reserves. We go to great lengths to rescue them. A few months back I got a call asking if our vet hospital in UP Diliman could X-ray a rescued eagle. UP Diliman is also the center of the Philippine Marine Mammal Stranding Network, which has rescued hundreds of beached whales and dolphins throughout the country.
All that benevolence and compassion stand in stark contrast to the great cruelty we can inflict on animals, nonhuman and human.
We need to be more reflective about our relationships with animals. Something as basic as pet ownership, for example: Do we really have the time to care for a (or another) dog or cat? Are we getting one for status, or because the kids kept clamoring for it? I couldn’t agree more with a sign I saw in a pet shop: “Dogs and cats are pets, not gifts.” Don’t give animals to a family unless you’re sure they want it, and are willing to give time to it (or him or her—pronouns are revealing, too).
We all have Primate Benjamins in our lives, or about to come to our lives. And, as Hirsch observes, they become part of our struggle to be human.
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